I think the general picture you have to sort of understand of this topic, Highland-Lowland migration, is that it does take two forms broadly: permanent and seasonal or seasonal temporary if you like. The distinctions between the two aren’t always easy to draw. The permanent migration we know. There are people present, living, Gaelic speaking, in Edinburgh and Glasgow from the end of the eighteenth century. There’s evidence, of course, that they were there well before. Neil MacVicar’s congregation in Edinburgh, we know, is supplemented by seasonal inflow of Highlanders working the harvest. So there’s a sort of circuitry, a circulation of seasonal and temporary migration, underlying this presence of permanent migrants. Broadly it falls, this seasonal pattern, this circuitry, falls into two types. One, there is this pattern for harvest labour which will be both male and female. This is from the end of the eighteenth and certainly during the course of the nineteenth century, regarded as a kind of necessary condition for keeping Highland life going without actually having to leave. There is a sense too, from the 1830s and 1840s, that crofting is, to some degree, actually critically dependent upon that out-movement for a period of time. We have examples of the Valtos crofter who’s reported in a MacNeill Commission of 1851 as spending twenty years on a sort of annual cycle. He spent six months in a farm near Dunbar and six months back in Vaternish and he’s someone who ... his whole life is structured around that pattern. The second pattern is more conspicuously gendered and that’s out-movement for the fishing industry for young women. That tended to be, not wholly, but tended to be from the north west Highlands and the outer isles to the fishing industries of the north east coast, to Buchan and the Aberdeen coast and so on although, in fact, they went much further afield too. There were Gaelic preachers, for example, for the Gaelic female fish folk who were working in places like Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, even as late as the early twentieth century. This is at moments interrupted by what we, I suppose, can think of as sort of pulses of migration. Again, the distinction between seasonal and permanent is quite hard always to get a handle on, but the pulse is prompted both by famine, notably in the course of the middle nineteenth century, and by particular opportunities for employment. So when the railways come, that’s a wonderful opportunity and it’s not far to go from, say, the central Highlands down to the central Lowlands either for canal work, of course earlier or, from the 1830s and 40s for railway work.

  • Charles Withers
Thursday 17th June 2010